The Econophysics Blog

This blog is dedicated to exploring the application of quantiative tools from mathematics, physics, and other natural sciences to issues in finance, economics, and the social sciences. The focus of this blog will be on tools, methodology, and logic. This blog will also occasionally delve into philosophical issues surrounding quantitative finance and quantitative social science.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Psychology of Evil (and Love)

Reflecting upon the tragic events of last week, I thought it would be helpful to offer up some material that might help put the most recent man-made tragedy (and, sadly, tragedies to come) into perspective using the tools of science.

Renowned social psychologist Philip Zimbardo has recently written a book about his unique take on the (in)famous -- where ordinary college students were put into a psychology experiment that gave some of them extraordinary power over the lives of other subjects -- titled The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. The New York Times recently interviewed Prof. Zimbardo about his views on the social (and personal) psychology of evil, Finding Hope in Knowing the Universal Capacity for Evil (April 3, 2007). (A video of the interview can be seen at this link.)

Philip Zimbardo's social psychology experiment was very similar in spirit to another (in)famous experiment carried out by fellow social psychologist (and childhood friend from the Bronx), Stanley Milgram. The involved testing how far subjects were willing to follow orders -- no matter how cruel or evil -- by putting them at the control of a seemingly authentic electroshock device hooked up to another human being. The late Prof. Milgram wrote up his findings for a popular audience in his book, Obedience to Authority, which remains a classic in popular science literature.

A more hopeful finding worth noting here came from the research of another noted experimental psychologist, Harry Harlow. Harlow (as well as others, including John Bowlby) managed to establish the concept of the supreme importance of love on a scientific basis. Science writer, Deborah Blum, has written a masterful book describing the science of love in her book, Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.

Profs. Zimbardo, Milgram, and Harlow, can be loosely grouped into the 'situationalist' school of psychology. The experimental legacies of all three of these giants in social science provide a solid basis for the idea that circumstances and situations play larger roles in human tragedies than we may feel comfortable with.

I would like to end this particular posting with a personal sentiment. I sincerely believe that evil cannot be overcome with more evil ... to do that only perpetuates more evil. I also believe that hate cannot be defeated with more hatred, nor can inflicted hurts be healed by inflicting hurt on others. Evil can only be overcome with good; hatred can only be vanquished with love.

It may sound slightly 'hippy-ish' to advocate for more love in the world, but -- as Harry Harlow, et al., demonstrated empirically -- the need for more love in our flawed and hurting world is, from a hard-headed (but not hard-hearted) scientific point of view, absolutely correct.

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